BROOKLYN, NY - One minute in conversation with Steve Powers, and you’ll understand how he got to be the country’s leading specialist in historical treen. His passion for compelling American treen, folk art, and choice American & English smalls, has driven him to see and study as much material as he can get his hands on.
“It’s a love before it’s a business,” he says of his company, Steven S. Powers, based in Brooklyn, New York which founded in 1996.
Vice President of the ADA, and NHADA member, Powers has been collecting what he calls “great little pieces of wood” since he was 21 years old. Raised in Maine, he inherited the collector gene from his parents. Powers recalls being first drawn to early carvings and complex surfaces of intricate works right out of college—particularly functional, everyday household objects made from the burls or knotty cancerous outgrowths of trees.
To locate early American wares, Powers scoured the Northeast from Virginia to Maine and west toward Ohio and Michigan. Relatively affordable, at about $800.00 to $1,2000.00 for a small bowl or ladle, Powers developed a small collection and studied each intensively. Inevitably, Powers found his interest far exceeded his pocket – and in order to handle more material, he had to begin a process of selling one good piece in order to see another of equal or greater quality. That process has been the core of his business model ever since—he is constantly trading up.
ADA dealer and former museum curator Brian Cullity has been buying from and selling to Powers for over 10 years now. Cullity said. “Steve likes the best, and I do too. He’s undoubtedly tops in the fields he deals in: treen and woodenware. He’s taught me a lot about burl, and wood and surface.”
A natural curiosity, Powers acknowledges that while he has a significant bowl, folk art carving or snuffbox he studies it intently, mentally cataloging the distinctions, features and irregularities. This heightened awareness, constant study and near photographic memory is supported by a digital archive Powers has been creating. In addition, Powers compiled and published a comprehensive study in 2005, North American Burl Treen: Colonial and Native American.
Among his most thrilling finds:
• A highly important 17thC Algonquian Human Effigy Ladle from the Alexander Thompson House, Orange County, NY
• Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Ivory Snuffbox in the form of a gloved fist
• 19thC Ojibwa Abstract Manitou Effigy Ash Burl Bowl
• The only known metalwork by Abraham Higgins (1738 – 1763) which is a brass snuffbox bearing his name and the date June 9th 1757, Barnstable, MA
As a dealer, he is eager to share his discoveries. Knowing the Higgins snuffbox would be of interest to Cullity, because of the quality, location of origin, and the fact that only one other known object ( a powder horn) was attributed to Higgins, Steve passed on the information to Cullity who was able to make the snuffbox part of an important Massachusetts collection.
In Jackson Heights, New York, Peter Brams has been a collector for over 40 years. Working with all kinds of dealers in that time, Brams considers Powers a curator as well as a dealer, and has been buying from him for more than 10 years now.
“He has impeccable credibility. He’s extremely honest about revealing everything he knows about an object. He’s not just selling you things, he’s helping to build your collection.” - Peter Brams.
Brams says, “He’s not a generalist, Steve is really responsible for developing and elevating the categories that were not considered before- not just through his book, but by being the first to deal with treen as a singular category.”
Powers’ strengths surface when something new is discovered. He’s able to put the object in perfect context. Brams recalls the Patten family sugar bowl. Covered in a complete chapter of Powers’ book, Brams says, “This typifies the scholarship Steve will put into a piece. It was wonderful watching him study and develop the history and full provenance. It’s a beautiful piece, and after his research, he turned it into a historical object. “
“He has great professional and intellectual integrity. It’s fun to work with him. I’m always learning from him.” Say Brams.
Powers’ constant activity and research allows him to say with confidence, “I have seen more American burl than anyone alive. And I can recall every piece I’ve ever seen. ”
Powers’ hands-on study, namely his time living among this body of investment grade objects, and an ability to articulate the proper forms, proportions and surfaces of items from the 1700s further substantiate his expertise. Formal training as a painter has heightened his ability to visually analyze an object, even from across the room or across the country.
“You can’t fake surface- well you can, but it doesn’t look quite right - wood really needs years to oxidize and patinate correctly. Accelerated oxidation, from chemical means, is easy to spot.” Steve adds, “As recently as the past 3 years, I have seen more than one object, sell for 6 figures that I knew to be fake.”
“Remember, the antiques business is a full century old,” adds Brian Cullity, “And so fakes have been around for a hundred years too. This means some of the fakes can look really good. More than just a look, Steve focuses on who made it, the associates- it’s very time consuming, but he’s really good at research- he wants to learn about it and the information he uncovers helps you to appreciate an item in many more aspects,” said Cullity.
A natural attachment and respect for each of his pieces could make it hard to let a particular find be sold. “I know if I can’t let something go, I can’t get the next thing, ” said Powers. “It’s not about the inventory. It may be better for business to be the kind of dealer who ‘restocks’ but I’d rather keep moving, instead of replacing what I have just sold. I’m not just flipping objects. That would be no fun at all. I need to live with an object for about a month to fully study and experience it—then I can let it go.”
Brian Cullity added, “Steve is really passionate about his stuff- it’s not just merch, it’s art.”
Powers exhibits at The Philadelphia Antiques Show, The Metropolitan Show, The Delaware Antiques Show and ADA/Historic Deerfield, though most of Powers’ business is conducted through established relationships (which often begins at a show), from a response from an ad or directly through his website www.stevenspowers.com. Steve Powers is available by appointment, email or by calling 718-625-1715.
In the meantime, Powers will continue to search for a few documented pieces that he has not yet located, and for unknown discoveries, “an effigy bowl or ladle from out of the blue is a recurring dream—thankfully it has come true a few times.”